Power of Words: Part 1 – Inclusive Language

10 mins read

This article is designed to help navigate the world of inclusive language, along with 4 key principles to remember in maintaining inclusivity in the words you use.

What’s Included in Inclusivity?

In 1375, the French romance poem Guillame de Palerme was translated into English and retitled William and the Werewolf. You may be wondering, “what does a 14th century poem have to do with inclusive language?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this poem is the earliest known written use of the singular pronoun “they” in the English language.1 “They/them” has become a spearhead pronoun in the inclusive language movement, but the historical precedence of using “they” to refer to a single person dating back to the late 14th century indicates that the crux of the problem is not the grammar, but the intention.

Inclusivity in language is intended to do just that: include. While the language around inclusivity has become fraught with debate and misunderstanding, inclusive language at its core is not designed to “avoid offense,” as Wikipedia defines it, but rather to ensure that all people, regardless of race, religion, creed, identity, ability, etc. are welcomed and included in their environments. By defining inclusive language by what it “avoids,” the effort is then to exclude certain vocabulary from your personal bank. Instead, focus on including thought, care, and kindness into your language base. The goal of inclusive language in your workplace is to ensure that all the people who work there feel supported, encouraged, and welcomed.

When contemplating inclusive language, try not to focus on the “politically correct” discourse, but rather focus on the people around you, in the office, and in the world. Inclusive language exists to ensure that every person you interact with is given the opportunity and respect to be themselves as an individual, to live their life to the fullest, and to have your support in achieving their highest potential. This issue is not political, it is personal, and by viewing inclusive language through this people-oriented lens you will get to the heart of why inclusivity is so important.

We have no intention of giving you a list of “do” and “don’t” words, words you can or cannot use. This approach is prescriptive and demanding, where rather we ask you to simply consider the impact of your language. Be aware of the language you use and what the person on the other end of your speech could be hearing.

 By actively engaging with inclusive language, you are naming, honouring, and valuing the experiences and identities of those around you. In the workplace, using inclusive language with employees and coworkers will encourage stronger team dynamics, and let everyone know that whatever they are working towards within your business is achievable and supported!

Language often unconsciously makes assumptions about people and unintentionally reinforces dominant norms around gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ability and disability, age, and more. For this reason, taking the time to be conscious of the words you use will help to break those norms and empower your employees and coworkers to strive to their highest potential! By celebrating the differences in your office, you can inspire higher productivity while maximizing both customer satisfaction and worker engagement.2

Principles for Inclusive Language:3

1. Put People First

At the heart of inclusive language are the people! Not only those you are speaking to, but yourself too. When you use inclusive language, focusing on the individual rather than descriptors, you create a connection between yourself and those you are speaking with. Take the time to consider who they are as person, not as a collection of descriptors. By taking the time to see the person in front of you and being conscious of the words you use, your language will become more inclusive automatically. This will also open stronger avenues of communication. When your language is safe for those around you, they will feel safe in coming to you with questions, difficulties, goals, and aspirations. Those you are speaking to will feel seen and heard, and in turn will see and hear you more clearly.

2. Use Universal Phrases

While it may not be the first thing you think of when you think “inclusive language,” idioms, industry jargon, and acronyms can be detrimental to your interactions with employees and colleagues when used incorrectly. These words or phrases may alienate those who may not have the same specialized knowledge as you, or who may even have a different understanding of those concepts. On the flipside, if you are speaking to someone and they use idioms, jargon, acronyms, etc. and your understanding is limited, be open to asking! The best way for language to become inclusive is by maintaining open communication about what is being communicated. By asking those questions, you open doors for yourself and others to be inclusive and develop connection not hindered by exclusivity.

3. Be Thoughtful

Often called the Golden Rule, when communicating with employees or colleagues, “treat others the way you want to be treated.” Take the time to think through what you are saying, how it may be harmful or beneficial in turn, and contemplate alternatives to potentially exclusive or harmful language. Inclusive language, at its core, means treating people with kindness and courtesy while acting as a source of encouragement. When in doubt, think it out.

4. Ask if You’re Not Sure

Now, you might be concerned. “What if I accidentally use exclusive language?” It’s easy to get our backs up when we make a mistake or say something that may hurt someone else. Remember, mistakes are a part of life. Walk into inclusive language with the intention of open communication. If you are speaking with someone and are worried that you will say the wrong thing, don’t be afraid to respectfully ask. Most people are happy to walk you through the language that makes them feel acknowledged and respected. Sometimes you may feel uncomfortable asking an individual what language positively and accurately reflects their experience, in which case, respectfully ask other colleagues. When done with the intention of learning and inclusion, and from a place of respect, asking questions is always a positive choice!

Again, none of this is meant to be prescriptive. Rather, the goal of this article has been to encourage you to think about the language you are using and the people you are speaking with. The first step to changing bias habits, habits that can be subconscious, is paying attention and entering each interaction with intention and care. When working on inclusive language in the workplace and beyond, try not to focus on what words you must exclude from your vocabulary. Instead, remember that the goal is inclusion and respect, and that by entering each conversation with mindfulness and intention, you will empower your colleagues and employees to feel secure, seen, and heard, leading to a stronger, more unified work environment.

Paying attention, being mindful, and being open to conversation are the best steps towards a more inclusive language-base, and a more productive office space.

For more on the power of the words we use, check out part 2 of this series: Jargon.

Download this resource The Power of Words – Part 1 – Inclusive Language.

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1 Burchfield, Robert. “A Brief History of Singular ‘They.’” Oxford English Dictionary. https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/

2 Doust, Afshin. “Why Inclusive Language Matters in Tech.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2020/04/03/why-inclusive-language-matters-in-tech/?sh=2407068e6017

3 Kovach-Galton, Kaela. “Say This, Not That: A Guide for Inclusive Language.” The Diversity Movement. https://thediversitymovement.com/say-this-not-that-a-guide-for-inclusive-language/

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